Two men accused of setting a fire that devastated a seafront hotel were caught with a torch and lighter fleeing the derelict building by police, a court heard.
Allan Smith, 39, and David Phayer, 40, admit they were wandering around the Palm Beach Hotel in South Shore minutes before the blaze broke out at around 1am on June 5.
They saw torchlight for about five minutes going from room to room and window to window
However, the pair, who are standing trial at Preston Crown Court deny, arson, claiming they never entered the top floor of the Promenade hotel – where the fire started – and fled when they heard footsteps.
Geoff Whelan, prosecuting, said the case rests on “inferential evidence”.
The court was told on the night of the fire, police were called after a neighbouring hotelier saw a man attempting to gain entry to the Palm Beach -–which had been boarded up for three years.
When they arrived, officers saw torchlight in one of the top floor bedroom windows and after assessing the building as unsafe they waited by the front and rear entrances for the trespassers to emerge.
Mr Whelan said: “They saw torchlight for about five minutes going from room to room and window to window.
“The torchlight then gave way to an orange glow which was a dull orange glow at first which quickly grew brighter and brighter.It was clear to them that a fire had been started on the top floor.
“A few minutes later the officers who were waiting in the rear alleyway heard the sound of voices coming from the rear of the hotel.
“The voices belonged to the defendants.”
The men were identified as Smith, of Millington Avenue, and Phayer, of Burlington Road, both South Shore.
Mr Whelan told the court: “Smith informed the officers they had been in the hotel but had not started the fire.
“Both were arrested on suspicion of arson.
“No-one else was seen by the police leaving the hotel.”
Smith was searched and found to be carrying a black torch and a clipper lighter, the court heard.
Fire experts concluded that the fire was caused by a naked flame being exposed to some hanging clothes inside a wardrobe.
The prosecutor added there may have been another seat of fire by a bed, also on the top floor.
During their police interviews both defendants said they had been walking past the hotel and had decided to “pop in and have a look around”.
However they said they had not set fire to the Palm Beach and had only got as far as the first floor before leaving when they heard footsteps above them.
Mr Whelan said: “The Crown’s case is that this is an inferential case, but a very, very strong inferential case, that in the circumstances it is the two defendants who are responsible for the arson – bearing in mind that the officers did not see anyone else leaving the hotel.
“The defence case is that they were there by coincidence and that someone else was responsible for the fire.”